Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
Christopher Herwig snapped incredible photos of Eastern Europe and Central Asia’s architectural underdogs.
When Christopher Herwig took off on his bike from London to St. Petersburg in 2002, he promised himself he’d take at least one interesting photo every hour. By the time he reached Lithuania, one type of structure kept standing out: old, Soviet-era bus stops. ”The first bus stop that made me really notice that something was going on was in Marijampole, outside Kaunas,” notes Herwig. “It was so perfect, like a doll house: cute, classic, simple, and inspirational.”
With the initial trip and photo project a success, Herwig decided to keep returning to Eastern Europe. The photographer has since captured old bus stops in 13 countries and the disputed region of Abkhazia, all formerly belonging to the U.S.S.R. Now, the entire project is in a book.
Soviet Bus Stops ($24, Fuel Publishing) is filled with Herwig’s remarkable photos of these understated structures. He tells CityLab that “you do see signs on the local level of people repainting and maintaining some of the bus stops,” but many of them are either “wasting away or being replaced with basic stops.”
During his travels, Herwig often drew suspicion from locals who were not used to seeing foreigners stop to admire such architecture. “Most people who saw me taking the photographs did not believe me when I told them that I was doing a positive thing and only thought was trying to show their country in a negative light,” he notes. “Many of the bus stops are in bad shape and used as a toilet by passers-by.”
But he also receives positive emails from people who look at his photos and recall their own experiences growing up in the former Soviet Union. And the rest of the world seems even more infatuated with the project. “I think there is a combination of factors that make the series popular,” says Herwig. “The bus stops are kind of like the underdogs of architecture, not always taken seriously, but here we see them trying hard, not once but hundreds of times.” While they’re not all architectural gems, he adds, “you can see that they tried to be different and explore new things.”
And after working on this project for 13 years, Herwig has his own perspective on what these structures represent. “The more I think about it, the more I come to the conclusion that these bus stops had little to do with the Soviet Union as a big machine,” he says. “They were not big projects that showed strength or showed off to the outside world how great there were but were really there for the local artists and people to express themselves and enjoy.”